Intersectionality, mental health and me

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As part of her guest editorship on Disability Arts Online, Dolly Sen commissioned writer Louisa Adjoa Parker to focus on her practice as a writer and how that intersects with other aspects of her identity.

Headshot of the writer

Louisa Adjoa Parker. Photo by Robert Golden

Like many people, I have multiple identities. Sometimes it gets a little confusing. Am I black first? Or a woman? I was a single mother for years, and what about the domestic abuse? Where does my mental health fit in?

In this piece I want to explore something I believe we should all be talking about: intersectionality – the intersecting forms of structural oppression and discrimination marginalised individuals can experience – and how this impacts our mental health and wellbeing.

I am a woman, who has experienced the sexism/ misogyny women experience. I am also of English and Ghanaian heritage. I was born in 1972, a time when Britain was unashamedly racist.

‘Race’ is complex and multi-layered. As well as overt, in-your-face, thug-with-hate-inked-into-his-skin, go-back-to-where-you-come-from racism, black and brown people are subjected to constant ‘micro-aggressions’ which can be experienced by any minority – subtle discrimination which has been compared to mosquito bites – once isn’t too bad, but a lot is overbearing.

For example, white people touching my hair without permission, or telling me I’m exotic. These things are not only annoying, but affect your sense of self. I’ve spent years feeling confused about my dual ethnic identity, and the fact that I’m seen by those around me as the racialized ‘Other’, in spite of the fact I’m English.

sepia portrait of the writer as a baby with her mother

Louisa and her mother

How I see myself was complicated further by the fact I’ve always lived in white, rural areas. The idyllic perception of the English countryside hides the very real problem of rural deprivation, which can be further compounded by other marginalisation such as being a person of colour and/ or disabled. Living in rural places often means it is difficult to access basic services and employment, let alone diverse cultural activities.

I am also an abuse survivor, having experienced domestic violence for the first twenty years of my life. As a child I never felt safe, and this feeling has continued. It was only through therapy that I understood the impact domestic violence had had on my life; for years I assumed my problems were largely caused by racism. I also experienced homelessness, being a single mum, the deaths of my daughters’ dads, and being on a low income. Life, as you can imagine, has been challenging. Inevitably, these experiences affected my mental health.

Although in my twenties I began to change my life – to some degree – through education and writing, my mental health issues continued. I have been treated for (or experienced symptoms of) generalised anxiety disorder, OCD, complex trauma, and depression. I also have noise sensitivity disorders. My mental health impacts every area of my life – work, relationships, being out in the noisy world, or even being at home. I’ve tried various treatments, and although part of me still hopes to find a ‘cure’, I am also working on acceptance and managing my health the best I can.

And this has impacted me physically. It is widely acknowledged that children who experience trauma are more likely to experience mental health problems in adulthood. As well as this, research shows that people who experience several adverse childhood experiences are more likely to have poor physical health in later life, too. I was diagnosed with ME/CFS nine years ago, and although I recovered to some extent, I have ongoing symptoms. Although I appear ‘well’ (and I am grateful for the health I have) I don’t feel well. Every day feels like a struggle.

When there are multiple aspects of yourself experiencing discrimination, it is complicated and confusing. There can be layer upon layer of oppression. In my case it’s hard to say what caused what – it almost doesn’t matter. Just as there’s diversity in us as a human race, there is diversity in us as individuals: our stories, our bodies, our way of responding to events.

I am an artist, and consider myself disabled. Yet until I was asked to write this piece, I had never seen myself as a disabled artist. Although I am committed to social inclusion, I realised I know little about the disability arts movement, and wondered why? The arts – a microcosm of society – are not a level playing field. They are dominated by white, cis-het, middle class males; if you’re from a minority background and don’t see yourself reflected in the field you work in, a barrier already exists.

Although there are activist movements attempting to create inclusive spaces, we need to explore diversity within diversity. It’s not enough to fight our own corners if we ignore the struggles of other marginalised groups, or ignore the fact that we have multiple, intersecting identities. I believe that all activist movements, the disability arts movement included, need to take an intersectional approach in the fight for equality.

book cover with white text on red

Blinking in the LIght by Louisa Adjoa Parker

So how can we support each others’ wellbeing in the arts and the wider world? We can recognise that we all have different levels of privilege which protect us from the damaging impact of discrimination. For example, those with white privilege go through life without having to think about what it’s like to experience racism every day. Men can live without fear of sexual harassment.

We can use our privilege as a platform from which we can call out discrimination against others. We can educate ourselves about the experiences of groups different to ourselves, and recognise there is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’ just us.

We can find out what people’s individual needs are, and recognise that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. It doesn’t have to be complicated. When I spoke on this topic at an event earlier this year I was asked, ‘What do you need?’ I was able to be specific, and felt valued and listened to.

If we begin having conversations about intersectionality and how this impacts on mental health, it will enable us to improve our own and others’ lives and to recognise that we are complex, and beautiful in that complexity. We all have multiple identities, shaped by history, biology, place and relationships. We are all more than just one thing.

You can find out more about Louisa Adjoa Parker’s work via her website at www.louisaadjoaparker.com